Early Arrival at Onion Valley looking east at Kearsarge Pass trail head.
Tuesday June 19th, 2018. 5:45 AM -- The Onion Valley parking lot was silent. I double checked all of my gear and downed the rest of the artificially flavored gas station coffee I picked up in the Mojave. By 6:15 AM I was on the Kearsarge Pass trail, and by 6:20 I had returned to the car because I forgot my caltopo maps and only summit beer. I probably would have left the maps behind if it weren't for the beer. I shuffled back to the trail head before making for Kearsarge Pass.
Gilbert Lake seen from the Kearsarge Pass trail.
By the time I had reached Gilbert Lake (2 miles, 1250 ft. vertical gain) I started to run into a flurry of north bound thru hikers tearing down camp. The imposing views of University Peak over the canopy of pines and easy access to an alpine lake made this an incredible place to walk through let alone spend the night, but I had bigger plans.
11,700 ft. elevation
View of Kearsarge Pinnacles & Lakes via Kearsarge Pass - Inyo National Forest.
I finally made it to the pass after keeping a relaxed pace for roughly 4.5 miles and 2,700 ft of vertical gain. The Kearsarge Pinnacles and lakes stood across the valley and continued east toward Bullfrog Lake. Somewhere north of these lakes was the Bullfrog Lake trail that I needed to follow. I would find my first marked trail junction at about 5 miles. The Kearsarge Pass trail would continue east along a high route while the Bullfrog Lake trail would descend a little closer to the lakes. I was starting to run low on water and asked a couple of thru hikers if there was a creek nearby. The woman noted one just half a mile up and we exchanged itineraries. They were headed to the small town of Independence for a resupply. The exchange was pleasant and just as they were walking away, I gave them specific instruction on the whereabouts of my igloo container in the bear box at camp. Its contents included two ice cold beers for them to share. Their mouths dropped and we parted ways.
10,620 ft. elevation
View of Deerhorn Mountain and its northeast chute from Bullfrog Lake.
Six miles in and I stood just northwest of Bullfrog Lake. Everything past Kearsarge to here was downhill or flat, which made for a great opportunity to soak in the views at an easy pace. I could finally see a fairly clear portion of the upper Vidette Creek Basin and Deerhorn Mountain. A solid white line separated the twin peaks and meant the northeast chute was still filled with snow. I wasn't sure how I felt about that yet but brought the essentials for snow travel including my ice axe and microspikes. So long as the North East Ridge was clear of any ice, an ascent would be possible.
Pacific Crest/John Muir trail sign at Upper Vidette Meadow (Bubbs Creek).
I continued along the path following the creek when I finally hit the infamous Pacific Crest/ John Muir Trail junction (mile 7, 2756 ft of gain) which would lead south toward Vidette Meadow. A 1,000 foot drop in about a mile stretch would follow where I would find the Bubbs Creek Trail junction and head further south on the PCT. The meadow was serene. Water trickled across the trail and tall pines shaded my every move making for an extremely tranquil experience. I made sure to stay focused since I would soon need to cross Bubbs Creek heading south following the Vidette Creek Confluence and the eight foot wide path I was currently standing on (defined by thousands of yearly hikers) would immediately become a faint use trail at best.
View of Bubbs Creek after crossing via this humongous log (no wet feet this time).
About a half mile from the last junction, the Creek started to move further away from the trail and I decided to follow it. My chosen route gradually became overgrown, but I stayed the course and found another tree that crossed over the creek. I made my way across and moved a little further south where I found a bit of relief. I rock cairn stood on top of a boulder. I was right on track.
Cross Country along Vidette Creek
View of Vidette Creek Basin and the first of two shoulders within the valley.
To my surprise, the cairn led directly to a fairly obvious use trail and another cairn. It was here that I noticed my already slow pace had turned to a slog. Driving directly from work the previous day had put me at roughly thirty-two hours of sleep deprivation and a dozen steps would leave me breathless with aching muscles. I followed the intermittent path for a mile before reaching the first of the Vidette Lakes. The scenery was incredible and the lack of an obvious trail made it even better. I mostly kept to the center of the canyon all the way up to a 300 foot granite slab shoulder at mile 10.5. After finally reaching the plateau, I was standing above another lake and decided to move east since the west side looked like an endless talus field traverse. I was rewarded with a relaxing lakeside route, enveloped by tall trees and stunning views of the surrounding peaks.
Just under a mile later, I had reached another 400 ft shoulder. I took my 50th break to convince myself that I was almost done and made for the next plateau. By the time I had reached the base of Deerhorn Mountain, I was completely drained. I spent all of ten minutes looking for a place to call home for the evening. After making a selection, I found a two square foot bit of shade and parked my head right under it. I was completely indifferent to the dozens of ants crawling on my body and within a minute I fell asleep.
Camping at the Base of Deerhorn Mountain
11,500 ft. elevation
Mount Stanford (left), Deerhorn Mountain twin peaks (left twin is actual summit).
When I awoke, I looked at my watch and the GPS was still enabled. I had slept for over two hours and it almost felt like waking up in a strangers house the morning after a night of binge drinking. Any chance of summiting on the first day was completely out of the question. I spent the evening reading trip report beta that I had saved to my phone while staring at the peak and finally decided that I would ascend via the northeast ridge. On the way down, I would investigate the northeast chute and if conditions weren't optimal, I would instead take the northeast buttress. I also had Mount Stanford in my sights, but not as a critical goal. After prepping a day pack and enjoying a well deserved dinner, I fell back to sleep.
North East Ridge of Deerhorn Mountain
Wednesday June 20th, 2018. 5:30 AM -- Cowboy camping at 11,500 ft had never felt so refreshing. The few times I did wake up throughout the night, I was presented with unbelievable views of the milky way crossing the sky. I got my things together and made for the bottom of the snowy slope. Although I woke up later than I'd have liked, I was well rested and the snow seemed to be holding pretty well.
By the time I had reached the bottom of the chute (.5 miles from camp, with 800 ft vertical gain), the snow was in full sunlight and starting to become a little slushy. I took a short break to remove my Micro-spikes and attach my Ice Axe to my pack and continued toward the ridge. Everything I had gathered suggested that it would be easier to stay to the north slope of the ridge, but the purist in me was after a challenge. I strayed near the ridge earlier than everything I had read and found myself negotiating some rough class 4 exposure. I might have spent twenty minutes on one 10-15 foot overhanging segment with no obvious handholds. I told myself to turn back several time but finally made it across what I now defined as the 'crux' of this climb and minutes after, a huge ice slab slid down the mountain about fifty feet away. It was here that I decided climbing Deerhorn was the only thing in my itinerary for the afternoon.
At 12,900 ft., I finally reached the 'knifes edge' segment of the ridge where I took many photos and continued toward the peak. The crux written about in other trip reports was fairly mild and included a short hop across some major exposure. The scramble to the peak was incredible. The gigantic bowl created by Mount Ericcson, Harrison Pass, and Mount Stanford made for a dramatic experience. I spent nearly 45 minutes at the summit reading the register (which hadn't a signature since September of 2017) while soaking in everything I worked for including my delicious summit beer. However, I knew that backpacking out would be no easy task and I would have to descend quickly.
The Northeast Couloir
I moved north after packing up all of my things and the route to the Col was obvious. I attached my snow gear and a quick glissade/self arrest brought me down an extremely steep slope with a plateau after about 50 feet. I figured this would be a good place to test out the water and everything went smoothly. The remainder of the couloir however, would not include such a gracious effort. The snow was so soft that self arresting did very little in the effort of slowing my speed and I was forced to stay close to the granite wall to avoid the snow for the majority of the Coulior. The lower I got, the easier glissading became and eventually I had made it back to camp within a margin of relative safety...
Returning to Onion Valley
The trek home was lax with the exception of the afternoon heat. Being well rested and having a lighter pack made the Vidette Basin much more enjoyable and I was able to shave nearly two hours off of my time from the hike in. Reaching Bullfrog Lake to filter some water and turning to see the view of everything I had accomplished felt amazing. My first solo backpacking trek in the Sierra was a huge success and would only pave the way for more adventures.
Total Distance (from trail head to summit) : 13 miles
Total Elevation (feet): 6,700 feet
Trail Difficulty: Hard.
- Class 1 heavily trafficked trail for everything up to Vidette Meadow (mile 9)
- Class 2 with the occasional scramble up to Deerhorn Mountain base (mile 12)
- Class 3 (avoidable class 4) solid granite rock scrambling to Deerhorn Mountain summit via northeast ridge.
***If you are planning to complete this hike, please be aware of your own abilities and needs. There is plenty of water from the trailhead all the way up to the base of Deerhorn mountain, after which point, any sort of life besides the occasional Marmot is nonexistent.